Hindi imposition row: Framing debate as North vs South issue shrouds insidious role of caste

The draft of the National Education Policy, released by the Ministry of Human Resource Development on 31 May 2019, was at the centre of a storm over what was perceived as its “imposition of Hindi” on non-Hindi speaking states.

The draft read: “The study of three languages by students in Hindi-speaking States would continue to include Hindi and English and one of the modern languages from other parts of India, while the study of languages by students in non-Hindi speaking States would include the regional language, Hindi and English.”

Faced with a backlash, the NEP draft was revised to offer flexibility over the choice of languages taught in schools under this three-language model.

But even as the debates swirled around language, identity, culture and politics, what there wasn’t much noise over, was the question of caste through language. Let me explain:

Hailing from the Vidarbha region, I was born and brought up in a Dalit basti in Nagpur. When I first visited Pune in search of a job, I was often told that my Vidarbhian dialect of Marathi (known as ‘Varhadi’) was not “shuddh” or correct.

I am certain that Dalits across other Indian states have had similar experiences with regards to language, when speaking in urban spaces, with Brahmins, at various levels of social, cultural and political life. Pune — chauvinistically portrayed as a hub of education and a place where people claim to speak pure Marathi — became the lightning rod for me to understand that the question of language has nothing to do with the state. If that were the case, then my dialect of Marathi would not have been mocked or considered impure.

In school, we were taught Marathi through textbooks mostly written in a Brahmanical-Sanskritised form of the language. While speaking in the basti and with those who came into our circles, this Marathi was hardly used. The textbook Marathi, however, was in use in Pune — among Savarnas. (Of course, it took me some time to understand the correlation between language and caste.)

 Hindi imposition row: Framing debate as North vs South issue shrouds insidious role of caste

The draft of the National Education Policy, released by the Ministry of Human Resource Development on 31 May 2019, was at the centre of a storm over what was perceived as its imposition of Hindi on non-Hindi speaking states. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Thinking over why we didn’t have textbooks in the language we spoke, the vocabulary we used, or the manner in which we used Varhadi, I was driven to pose a question: Whose language had I been learning in school? This gave rise to another question: Whose purpose does this taught language serve, especially (when disseminated) through school?

What I thought and felt, had been felt and thought by many earlier — ever since the linguistic reorganisation of states in India, in fact. The caste element in this phenomenon, however, has remained unanswered.

Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar wrote in his Thoughts on Linguistics States:

“Why do Tamils hate Andhras and Andhras hate Tamils? Why do Andhras in Hyderabad hate Maharashtrians and Maharashtrians hate Andhras? Why do Gujaratis hate Maharashtrians and Maharashtrians hate Gujaratis? The answer is very simple. It is not because there is any natural antipathy between the two. The hatred is due to the fact that they are put in juxtaposition and forced to take part in a common cycle of participation, such as Government. There is no other answer.”

With this, Dr Ambedkar intended to draw our attention to one of the most crucial questions regarding the working of newly promulgated Indian democracy — the question of proportional representation of languages in the governmental mechanisms of the nation, to ease the process of making democracy and its benefits accessible to those who needed it the most: Dalit-Bahujans.

The subtext to his statement was the question of caste, and its imposition over people through the language promoted by the state and ruling class. But it picked up traction neither among the masses nor the ‘intelligentsia’ despite the many struggles that followed the formation of states on a linguistic basis — especially the vehement anti-Hindi protests of the ‘60s and ‘70s,  in which nearly a hundred Tamils lost their lives. The issue was seen, portrayed, interpreted, and depicted as a struggle between North vs South, Hindi vs Tamil; but never was the language question juxtaposed with caste and understood via the caste-mode-of-production.

Language departments at most Indian universities are led by Savarnas, especially Brahmins. The discourse of all languages is dominated by the same ruling class of Brahmins/Savarnas across Indian states — whether in the North or South, whether the language is Hindi, English or Marathi.

The history of the struggle against Colonialism (with English being one of its crucial facets) in India, has been (by and large) interpreted and written by the Brahmanical class and through its perspectives. But is this not the same Brahmanical class that has been the biggest beneficiary of English? Count their numbers and presence in English language media, literature and academic circles and you can reach the truth. Is it not the same across all Indian states, with language produced through media, literature and academics via Brahmins/Savarnas/the ruling class? To elucidate the issue, one can turn to what Kuffir Nalgundwar, co-editor of Roundtable India, had to say in one of his articles on question of language and caste :

“The plain truth is that the political framework that binds the Indian state together now is the coalition forged together by the Savarnas/dominant castes across states. So when the AIADMK or the DMK sprang up to oppose Hindi being 'imposed', was it really the imposition of unequal citizenship on the Tamils and other linguistic groups, through the agency of Hindi as the language of the Indian state, that they were opposing? Unequal citizenship is what they themselves practise in Tamil Nadu, as seen in Paramakudi or Dharmapuri, how can they oppose it? Because they can get away with it. Because like them, their pan-Indian partners at the Indian centre (irrespective of parties/alliances in power), composed as it is of representatives of savarna/dominant caste interests from across states, also get away with it in their respective states. Therefore, it is the Indian state that protects them, despite Paramakudis and Dharmapuris in Tamil Nadu, and not Tamil nationalism, just as it protects the Jats in Bhagana or the Kapus in Lakshimpeta.”

Reading Nalgundwar’s words in their entirety makes evident that this issue of “Hindi imposition” (as it had been portrayed since decades), is more fundamentally an issue of caste and imposing it over the Dalit-Bahujan people. It is not North vs South, Hindi vs Tamil. It is about the consolidation of the languages of a Brahmanical ruling class and the Balkanisation of the various languages and dialects spoken for centuries by Dalit-Bahujans.

Yogesh Maitreya is a poet, translator and founder of Panther's Paw Publication, an anti-caste publishing house. He is pursuing a PhD at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

Also read — Why Hindi isn't the national language

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Updated Date: Jun 09, 2019 10:48:35 IST